Frank Smith: Guantanamo

Smith, Frank (2010), Guantanamo, Seuil
ISBN 978-2-02-102095-3

Frank Smith’s 2010 novel Guantanamo is an odd little creature. It is a fiction based on 380 released formal interrogation protocols from the detainment facility in the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. Guantanamo mirrors, reflects and projects some of those interrogations without every really assuming the character of a play or a drama. Formally, it consists of 29 short chapters of unequal length, each containing an interrogation, or rather, an excerpt from an interrogation; no chapter exceeds 6 pages, some take up only 2 or 3. Reading the book feels like perusing a portfolio of delicately wrought small dialogues (with the odd monologue now and then), although it is in fact composed of pieces or fragments: every reader knows a formal interrogation is a ritually rigid situation, with clearly marked beginnings and ends, the protocols of which, after all, are meant to convey to their readers (judges, intelligence officers, military officers etc.) a fully informed opinion of the particular interrogation in question, an impression that those readers can then base further investigations on. We, as readers of Guantanamo know that, although the book doesn’t tell us. It hides the official, rigid nature of many of these dialogues. In fact, the excerpts, as a rule, offer us no indication whatsoever where in a full interrogation a particular piece is supposed to be placed. These are, for all intents and purposes, fragments, but only implicitly, they are not marked as such. For the reader they feel like very concentrated doses of story. There is a certain disconnect, a lack of introduction, say; now and then changing voices can even cause a jolt to the reader, but the readers have to infer the fragmented nature from their own knowledge. After all, some familiarity with the general process of formal interrogations can be expected. In this sense, there’s a certain schizophrenic feel to the whole enterprise of Guantanamo, which vacillates between old fashioned storytelling and écriture engagée in the form of documentary drama à la Heinar Kipphardt. Come to think of it: ‘vacillates’ might be the wrong word: it marvelously succeeds in doing both.

The book relies so much upon shared knowledge between the writer and his audience, there is so much implicit, unsaid, blacked out, that the book, for the uninitiated, for the reader out of touch with current events and the broader implications of names, dates and events in the book, can seem a modern cousin of turn-of-the century short prose, in particular of books like Sherwood Anderson’s momentous Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of short, interconnected prose, less concerned with playing narrative games and more with exploring storytelling and the connections between the long and the short form. A similar effect is achieved by Edgar Lee Masters’ canonical collection of poems, Spoon River Anthology, which, despite the difference in genre, is perhaps even closer to Guantanamo. Books like these (and traces even of texts like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood) come to mind, because the book’s basic impulse is to tell stories, in a simple but effective language. We as readers get to know an array of prisoners, and we learn of the way that they came to be arrested and incarcerated by the United States in the infamous detention facility on Cuba. With a story per (small) chapter, it could become repetitive due to the form of the interrogation, but the book as a whole has my rhythmic, musical feel to it; Smith plays with the ways to present dialogue. Some chapters are simple question/answer dialogues, written down like scenes in a play. Others keep the alternating rhythm of the interrogatory, but embed it in prose, adding words like “asked” and “replied”. This is the most common solution, as well as the most fascinating, fascinating because the subject of these sentences is invariably “on”, a French subject pronoun hard to translate into English. The best equivalent in English would maybe be “one” used as pronoun, in order to be a substitute for the pronouns ‘I’ / ‘you’ / ‘they’ / ‘we’. depending on the context. On seems to the speaker of French, like its German equivalent man, a simple, extremely common word, but its usage (cf. Le Bon Usage) is actually rather complex and the implications for Guantanamo infinite.

Without unpacking French grammar at this point, suffice to say that the word tends to mean something rather global. It is often used to subsume a group of persons under an umbrella pronoun, in the sense of ‘In Louisiana we like to dance’, or ‘In Louisiana, they like to dance.’ The use of it as an equivalent of ‘we’ is particularly common in colloquial language. This, like many other uses of the pronoun, ally the speaker with the action of the sentence or even with a group of people engaged in the action, but intuitively, one would expect that a pronoun supplanting the “interrogator” in the sense of “the interrogator asked…” would be equivalent to the English ‘he’ or ‘she’, for example. In a very strange way, this method achieves two objectives, it quietly dissolves boundaries between the two actors, and it makes us as readers complicit in the act of questioning, as well as in the process of being questioned. At the same time, it is a remarkably common word to use; no-one who regularly reads French would stumble over it. It’s not jarring, not difficult, not even particularly odd. It is quite astonishing how Smith manages to wring effect from simple means without having to highlight the effect, without forcing it on the reader. It is only when considering a translation that you start to weigh pronouns, that you notice how important and effective Smith’s use of language is. The ‘on’, arguably, is meant not just to provide a he said/she said structure. Instead it contains a suggestion as to who is speaking and who is spoken about, who is only relayed, read and perceived second-hand, and who is providing the first hand account. Guantanamo is quite obviously interested in providing not just stories, but it impresses on its readers how people come to be in such a prison, and what happens to their language within. The brackets, the constraints, the limits to the stories that detainees can tell, this is as important in Guantanamo as the stories they do tell. The short prefatory note already announces the distance of the detainees to open speech:

Nous allons vous poser quelques questions
afin de mieux comprendre votre histoire

Cut into two lines, it is three things at once: it announces the thematic focus of the dialogues to come, it suggests, through its almost epigrammatic nature, a certain amount of heightened artifice, and lastly, it introduces the dominating voice and interest, the “we”. We will ask you questions, because we are interested in your history.

This focus, and the lack of explicit condemnation, the matter of fact description, this allies Guantanamo with a select group of (mostly) mid-century documentary plays. At the same time, Frank Smith declines to arrange his small chapters into a strong narrative, one that is implicitly condemning at least, he does not do what so many other writers did: write a novel composed of voices but roughly following a plot or an ideologically motivated narrative. Reading an isolated chapter near the end seems as much of a reading experience as reading one from the beginning. It is, however, Smith’s achievement that the book, as a sequence, and as a poetical artifact, makes sense, without coherence being forced upon the reader by an overarching storyline. In this, Guantanamo differs strongly from those other documentary plays. Three particularly important and excellent instances of the documentary fictions I mentioned are Peter Weiss’ The Investigation, Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of Robert J. Oppenheimer or Karl Kraus’ massive, violently apocalyptic masterpiece Die Letzten Tage der Menschheit (not translated into English, but available in French as Les Derniers Jours de L’humanité, translated by Jean-Louis Bresson and Henri Christophe). All three of them have one thing in common: their fragmented nature, their use of widely available sources as basic material, and their emphasis on human dignity and on the forces that endanger or destroy it. There is Kipphardt’s Oppenheimer, nuclear physicist, his voice borrowed from the tapes of McCarthy’s quizzical henchmen, who warned about the dangers of modern warfare. There is Karl Kraus’ Viennese public, vibrating with apocalypse as the first World War approached, and finally soldiers, journalists and others during the horrific darkness of that war, their voices and publicly recorded statements creating a smattering of tones and registers in one of the 20th century’s most epochal plays. Finally, there are the voices of witnesses, judges and defendants in Weiss’ play about the Frankfurt Nazi trials, where those responsible for Auschwitz were dragged into court. Weiss’ play is arranged in a way that has us follow him into a genocidal cascade, ending with the burning of the murdered Jews in Auschwitz’ ovens.

All three of these writers rely almost exclusively on public documents, but in each case the result is an almost symphonic indictment of outrages committed against humanity. War, genocide, cruelty. Their authors formed part of the public consciousness, and their books were as much an expression of a particular political rhetoric as they were well-turned works of art. Plays like The Investigation were meant to be performed in a way that highlighted the speech onstage, with few details, just a courtroom and the stark words of witness. The implication was that honest words were enough evidence, that they are convincing and powerful enough on their own, although in each case the authors clearly assumed that their audience needed a nudge or a shove to read the plays the right way, hence the narrative closure and structure of the plays. Since their time, however, witnesses, and the reliability and validity of their words have been called into question, most famously perhaps by Shoshana Felman’s and Dori Laub’s amazing work. The problems of trauma, and of the knotted issue of representation have made works like Weiss’ very rare today. Reality has retreated from the battlefield of mainstream literature, as we started to understand how much our perception of reality is filtered and processed, as we started to question the relationships between our convictions and our flawed, second-hand perceptions. Fictions started to engage with culture, literature and other constructs that influence perceptions and form and funnel our representations. At the same time, as Felman and Laub have made abundantly clear, despite what they famously called “a crisis in witnessing”, witnesses exist and are important and oftentimes our only link to historical truth. Many theoretical efforts have been made to interrogate our understanding of the process of witnessing, efforts that have been reflected in poetry and the visual arts. Fictional prose, however, often steps clear of these issues, rarely attempting to deal with them, and even more rarely succeeding at that task. Documentary fiction, as part of other genres, postmodern, historical or cut-up prose, has persisted, with great success, but the likes of Weiss, Kraus or Kipphardt have been few and far between. Guantanamo is an outstanding example of that kind of writing.

The very title of the book is the first indication for us readers as to what game Frank Smith has decided to join. The prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba has become a byword for inhumane and unjust treatment. Interrogation practices in Guantanamo have become the focus of tempestuous legal, political and philosophical debates, practices, that is, that have relied occasionally even on torture, something that most first world countries had thought to have banned and banished decades ago. The detainees have, until recently, not had the possibility of challenging their incarceration in civilian courts, and even military tribunals have only been instated upon intense public and political pressure. Criminals, soldiers and innocents alike have been herded into cages and had to submit to often degrading treatment. This is the background of Smith’s book, but only very rarely do the dialogues that we are offered touch upon these issues, not explicitly, anyway. I think it’s fair to assume that Smith presumes all of this as part of the shared knowledge of his audience, and so he does not need to engineer outrage: he can safely expect his audience to be informed about the topic and suitably mad at that abuse of military and political power. The major difference to, for example, Weiss’ play, is that Weiss wanted to teach his audience about the atrocities that happened. Germany at the time was trying to cope with a massive case of collective self-induced amnesia. He used witnesses to create new knowledge and outrage in his German audience that was governed, at the time, by a former NSDAP member, Kurt Georg Kiesinger. Similar motivations powered Kipphardt’s and Kraus’ plays. Their plays would have lost their evocative power had they considered the difficulties of witnessing, the aporias of historical knowledge, to paraphrase Giorgio Agamben. History was there to be uncovered, written down and declaimed on the stage. Frank Smith, composing the poetical artifact that is Guantanamo, didn’t have that freedom. He was restrained by the awareness, the doubt and other difficulties that have beset historiography between the 1960s and today. From these restraints, however, he fashioned a fascinating literary jewel.

So these are the two polar opposites between which Frank Smith’s book is arranged. Anderson’s fiction and Master’s poetry on the one hand, and Kipphard’s harsh plays on the other, but it’s more rigid, more strict and disillusioned than either. Work like Giorgio Agamben’s might explain many of the tensions, but this is not the place to elaborate upon Agamben’s Homo Sacer trilogy. It’s worth noting, however, that Agamben’s very focused upon the processes that one’s state in a legal system plays for one’s ability to form truthful statements. He is probably most famous for his declaration of a “state of exception” that people in extra-legal camps like Guantanamo and in Nazi concentration camps occupy. They are an exception because the law of the respective countries has a gap where these camps are concerned. It doesn’t really discuss them and their odd status. The Bush administration has created that “state of exception” by inventing a special status for the detainees of Guantanamo Bay: unlawful combatants, which put them out of reach both of US domestic law and international laws like the Geneva Conventions. Agamben’s careful discussion of what this means for people speaking of and about their experience in camps like these are interesting and very relevant for Guantanamo, which appears to have been written with the care of someone highly aware of the difficulties in writing about these topics.

His approach, which consists of formally innovative, but not intrusively difficult small chapters, is likely to be inspired by the work of William Carlos Williams, whom he quotes in an epigraph at the beginning of the book:

No ideas but in things

This very famous phrase is from a 1944 poem called “A Sort of a Song”, which was published in the collection The Wedge (you can find it in WCW’s Collected Poems (Volume. II)). In Williams’ “Author’s introduction”, he lays out his concept of poetry. He claims that formal invention creates meaning and illumination, “a revelation in the speech that [the writer] uses”. The greatness of Weiss’ work in his time, and Anderson’s, Masters’ and Thomas’ in theirs, derives not from the stories they tell, per se, but from the unique means they have employed to tell the story, to make their work of art. And in his own time, Frank Smith attempts to do the same. For such a small book, there is an enormous amount of thinking contained in here. We could talk at length about how he uses the reader’s entrenched suspicions, how he handles places in the small stories of peregrinations that the detainees tell us, how he makes us complicit in the public acts of mistrust that Muslims are so often subjected to, how he uses translation and language as vectors of speech. All this is in there and much more, but on the surface the book seems so humble. Part of that, again, may be Williams and his admonition that a poet should take “words as he finds them interrelated about him”. Smith uses simple words, imbued with a complex understanding of the ‘interrelations’ in them. On the other hand, how humble is a book that bears the title Guantanamo, thus announcing to the world that it discusses a timely and important topic? One can’t help but feel that the book is carried by a certain sense of importance. Well, that’s as it should be. It is an important topic and it seems to me that Guantanamo is an important book.

9 thoughts on “Frank Smith: Guantanamo

  1. I stopped reading when I realise the book was in French, but let me take this chance to share with you a quote I endlessly delight in, from J. M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year:

    Someone should put together a ballet under the title Guantanamo, Guantanamo! A corps of prisoners, their ankles shackled together, thick felt mittens on their hands, muffs over their ears, black hoods over their heads, do the dances of the persecuted and the desperate. Around them, guards in olive green uniforms prance with demonic energy and glee, cattle prods and billy-clubs at the ready. They touch the prisoners with the prods and the prisoners leap; they wrestle prisoners to the ground and shove the clubs up their anuses and the prisoners go into spasms. In a corner, a man on stilts in a Donald Rumsfeld mask alternately writes at his lectern and dances ecstatic little jigs.
    One day it will be done, though not by me. It may even be a hit in London and Berlin and New York. It will have absolutely no effect on the people it targets, who could not care what ballet audiences think of them.

  2. The marvel about books like this and Weiss’ and Kraus’ is not to attack a target, it’s about thinking, about being part of a public consideration of important issues.

    If I have not made this clear: there is no torture in the book, no grotesque brutality. All this is merely implied, and the book makes no attempt to wildly attack anyone, it doesn’t even make a judgment as to the innocence of the detainees whose stories it tells.

    It is an infinitely better book than you appear to believe it to be.

  3. Sorry, you seem to have misunderstood me: I am sure that it is an excellent book (especially since you are giving it a glowing review, I know you to be a person of very thoughtful taste), I just lost interest because I realised it was in French. When I hear word of a translation, I’ll be sure to come back here.
    And the quote had nothing to do with what I thought of the book, it’s just something I like a lot and think about every time someone mentions Guantanamo Bay.

  4. You can never go wrong with Weiss. A writer of genius, he has never produced a bad book.

    Kipphardt…is more like the ballet people. Very well-meaning, with glowing literary talent, but he is often too carried away by his own enthusiasms. The play I mention is great, as is his play on Eichmann and his novel about a mentally handicapped boy. But he is weirdly exploitative, weirdly unaware of his own privilege, his own position in the structure of things he describes. Very, very flawed, but certainly worth reading at least once.

  5. Also, I don’t think Coetzee was so much being a pessimist about art as trying to convey what a farce the whole business was. That’s why, I think, he chose the ballet.

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